“What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I'm not a nigger, I'm a man, but if you think I'm a nigger, it means you need it.” - James Baldwin
I feel insane. Purely, intensely insane and lost, at the moment. I have repeated the same thing over and over again expecting a different result, and it has finally come to ahead. I have vertigo that has nothing to do with heights, my eight-mile morning walk, COVID-19, hypoglycemia, or two years of sleep deprivation due to motherhood. I’ve been wanting, diving, and inviting the eradication of indoctrination in my mind, and guess what, I got it. I’m not quite sure who I am suddenly and feel hysterical. I’ve had a peek above the smoke and mirrors, and in essence, the bone structure of my reality. Deep shit. I’ve stepped both in and out of it.
A large part of my experience as a Black woman has been wading through an insistent hassle of racism. I’ve come to find out that my identity has been a by-product of a lie with roots stronger than they are long, and that the same goes for all who subscribe to the divisions of race. I know I have to explain what I mean, and I will.
On April 24th, 1684, Francois Bernier’s memoirs titled "A New Division of the Earth" was read before the Anthropological Society of London where his observations were as unscientific as you can get. He split humanity into four separate species. His division of Africans is as riveting as it is ridiculous: “Under the second species I put the whole of Africa, except the coasts I have spoken of. What induces me to make a different species of the Africans, are, 1. Their thick lips and squab noses, their being very few among them who have aquiline noses or lips of moderate thickness. 2. The blackness which is peculiar to them, and which is not caused by the sun, as many think; for if a black African pair be transported to a cold country, their children are just as black, and so are all their descendants until they come to marry with white women. The cause must be sought for in the peculiar texture of their bodies, or in the seed, or in the blood-which last are, however, of the same colour as everywhere else. 3. Their skin, which is oily, smooth, and polished, excepting the places which are burnt with the sun. 4. The three or four hairs of beard. 5. Their hair, which is not properly hair, but rather a species of wool, which comes near the hairs of some of our dogs; and, finally, their teeth whiter than the finest ivory, their tongue and all the interior of their mouth and their lips as red as coral.”
The hierarchy of humans as a separate species became all the rage and stayed that way. In 1775, German physician, naturalist, and anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s ridiculous claims of “natural varieties of mankind” were pure terrorism on the whole of our humanity. In his egomaniacal schema “he maps a hierarchical pyramid of five human types, placing "Caucasians" at the top because he believes a skull found in the Caucasus Mountains is the "most beautiful form of the skull, from which...the others diverge.’'
As Europeans immigrated to The New World during this time, many to flee persecution in hopes of prosperity and religious freedom, they were suddenly a melting pot of ethnicities. European settlers who were more financially empowered had to maintain a balancing act of control over African enslaved people, other European indentured servants while protecting themselves from any Natives warring in self-defense. The indentured servants were so poor that they began to connect and ally with the enslaved as they had a share in trauma. The term “White” was a political construct unleashed to consolidate strength in Europeans to control everyone else because they were (and still are) outnumbered. White was defined as not having one drop of African or Indian blood. Considering we now know we were all birthed from a Black woman, as we modern homo sapiens originated from Africa, it would be laughable that Whiteness still exists if it wasn’t so atomically vicious.
Colonialists, or looters, murderers, and thieves, were infecting the world as they seized it. Natives were dropping like flies from European germs and disease. “Scholars'', and their amazing rational thinking, decided this was due to natural law, and not that they were sickening. The fairytales kept coming and from highly esteemed storytellers at that. To name a couple out of many in their influencer culture, Winwood Reade of the London Geographical and Anthropological society published his book “Savage Africa '' in which he prophesied “England and France will rule Africa. Africans will dig the ditches and water the deserts. It will be hard work and the Africans will probably become extinct. “We must learn to look at the result with composure. It illustrates the beneficent law of nature, that the weak must be devoured by the strong.” Charles Darwin really put the nail in the coffin when he published “On the Origin of the Species” in 1859, where he documents the process of evolution and coins the verse “survival of the fittest''. His theory of evolution suggested that as naturally ordered, the weak die off and the strong survive. Unintentionally, it was used as pseudoscience to justify genocide and racism. Social Darwinism mixed with elitist, European cultural stereotypes lit the world on fire. A false biological popularity contest from hell became the birth of White as a superior identity. Settlers used this rhetoric to morally justify the genocide of millions of my ancestors while being herded as cargo into ships ready to carry them off to their divine destiny of enslavement. White was and is as much mythology as a nigger, and these flat out lies wouldn’t have lasted this long if it didn’t make so much damn money.
Whiteness violently forged itself into the Blackness of my ancestors. Through the cruelest savagery that we can only pretend to understand, the names, language, religion, food, perception of love, relationships, smiles, tears, and culture of my people were remade to become the footstool for the lie of supremacy. Without this dichotomy, whiteness couldn’t exist, and with this dichotomy, my identity is fractured. It is this awakening that caused the crack in my mind. I’m confused about who I am because I recognize the dementia of my existence and have momentarily broken free from bondage, forever changed. And with no understanding of how to proceed, I will start with my becoming.
My grandfather, whom I called Papa, was a white, cowboy from Fargo, N.D. who survived the Great Depression and WWII. His government name was Lewis Jim Nelson. He had a unique respect for people. I never thought to ask why he was the way he was while he was still here. To marry into a Black family in his fifties, and the ‘80s says something. He embraced anything that struck him as genuinely good or honorable. He carried moths outside of the house like a Buddhist. He stuck a Star of David sticker on the front of the little kitchen window of our townhome in Alameda when none of us were Jewish. He collected self-help books and Playboy magazines. He drank like a sailor and jovially cursed like one too. Football was his favorite sport. He met my grandmother, the gorgeous Lily Jeanette (who I renamed Nana), when they worked at Laney College in Oakland, California. together. He became a pillar in our family not long before I was born.
My nana, Lily Jeanette, is still with me. She is around to influence my children with her love and idiosyncrasies. Nana is one of my favorite humans of all time. I used to think she was an angel stuck on earth. As an adult, I acknowledge her complexity. Her smile, however, is still absolutely supernatural. Nana didn’t spend much time with her mother, but she looks like her fair-skinned, carbon copy. Nana was given to her great grandmother as a baby. Her days as a child were spent watching bugs in the front yard. She continues to have the utmost respect for ants. She thinks cats are evil because she saw an orange one hypnotize a sweet little bird once before killing it. She picked cotton with her family instead of going to school. She still talks about the cute bunny rabbits whose fluffy tails blended in with the stalks as they hopped by. Sometimes when she sweeps, she laughs and pretends to throw cotton in a sac behind her back. When she was young, her clothes were oversized and would embarrassingly fall off her at times. They couldn’t afford shoes for her little, pale feet. She would skip barefoot back and forth across the train tracks that divided the white and Black sides of town. Our family had a brother in Smithville, Texas and her mother was a prostitute. I heard she used to gallop bareback on horses and skinny dip her beautiful, brown skin in rivers under the sun. Nana’s father was one of her suitors; a passing traveler from Spain. She’s only ever seen one photo of him.
In love and marriage, Jim and Lily Nelson shared an intense obsession with pop culture memorabilia. An explosion of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, and Bruce Lee was all over the house in forms of painting, photos, prints, porcelain masks, porcelain plates, beach towels, glassware, refrigerator magnets, and mugs. Family photos were on display, sporadically hugging the walls along the gray, carpeted staircase. I remember a large photograph of my young mother in a red jumper next to a painting of bronze Elvis and his high beams; drawings I brought home from school; a framed print of John Wayne’s head and red bandana floating in a sky overlooking galloping horses; photographs of my cousins, aunt, and uncles; and a black and white photograph of Marilyn and her famous, lascivious gaze. These icons were situated as my relatives. The only shade of brown I remember besides mine was a statue of Aunt Jemima on the left-hand edge above the hanging wine glasses in the kitchen. Nana showed up to a Halloween party for work as Aunt Jemima in full blackface once. She would have to hide when she and Papa Julius would travel together across the tracks because she looked so white. He could have gotten lynched. It’s clear by the light in her eyes when she shares her memories that this was the happiest time of her life. She’s also flat out said it. Nana dances between being too sweet or too negative. Her rhythm is that of sorrow and joy. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her.
No one could have predicted Papa would be my surrogate father the moment I made it to his arms. He took a photo of me bundled up in the nursery of Alta Bates hospital when I made my grand entrance. When I look at that photo, I become transfixed on the reflection from the flash bouncing off the glass on his wispy hair, thick hands, and broad shoulders. The photograph fully encapsulates the beginning of our love story. We were special to each other. He could be the father to me that he wasn’t ready to be for his son in his youth. He was what I needed. Papa took me seriously as a child, which people don’t usually do with children. We learned from each other, but he was truly my educator. He taught me how to read, write, swim, wonder, wander, pay attention to detail, create, explore, ride horses, eat steak rare, and have respect for the ways people were both different and the same. His eyes were blue like the ocean. We laughed as his skin turned red, then yellow when I made handprints on his arms and round belly. In most of my memories, he has a big smile on his face. He always chuckled as he hung up the phone. I knew how sick he was when that laughter of just being happy to have spoken to me, turned to silence. He died when I was nineteen. I can’t mention Papa without wordy reverence because he lives in the parts of my character I’m most grateful for.
Remembering memories is such a fragile and magical meditation. I’ve always wondered why our most impressionable years have so many gaps in time.
Papa was an adventurer and took us all over California in his burnt gold Volvo. The Sea Gypsy Motel in Pismo Beach was our frequent destination. One time on the four-hour drive, we saw a caramel horse tipping its neck over a picket fence. Papa stopped the car and picked me up, carrying me to get a closer look. He used to draw horses all the time. I imagine he wanted to say hello as much as I did. It was a crisp, breezy day with hot sunshine and blue skies, that specific feeling you only get on the west coast. And then a startling thing happened that made all three of us jump. An old, white man barreled through the front door of his house with a shotgun pointed directly at us. I don’t remember any words exchanged, just Papa covering my eyes and taking me back to the car. This scene is my first conscious recollection of the kind of fear that makes all your organs sink to the ground.
My mother was a singer and seventeen, going on eighteen when she had me. Papa would sometimes take her to gigs where my part of the act was making her throw up between songs. Mom knew grandparents would nurture a childhood of normalcy that a tour bus could never provide. She was making a life for us. Even out of her belly, she would call my name to come on stage. I danced in front of thousands of fans as she celebrated me before she sang; roaring applause just for being her daughter. Papa and Nana were always close by, clapping along, to anything I ever did.
When I was around five, Mom was ready to take me across the country to our new life in Atlanta. She had met a fellow musician and fell in love. According to legend, I didn’t like him one bit. It’s understandable. My mother belonged to me of course, and I was already tired of sharing her with the world. This man would be my father and inescapably, I would fall in love with him too. But at this point in time, something strange happened when she told me they were getting married. My reaction was startling. I cried and hollered, “No! You can’t marry him, mommy, because he’s Black and you’re white.”
We’ve inherited a system designed only to teach a white child. Perpetual, psychological genocide subsisting in our education, tv shows, films, news, books, music, consumer goods, the justice system, government, and constitution sustains this megalomania with perfection. King cotton tells us deliberately in a soft and sweet, airy jingle that it is still “the fabric of our lives” after all. It should be no surprise then that a little Black girl can cry out in self-hate when her mother, who she assumed was white, fell in love with a Black man.
Eight hundred and eighty thousand good Christian men fought in The Civil War to protect their religion of Whiteness; their almighty right to traffick, rape, sadistically brutalize, violate, sell, experiment on, lynch, molest, terrorize, manufacture, and work fellow human beings to death, for free. And as they whipped their generational wealth generators into submission, they believed that God still loved them the most. I wonder if they saw the bright rays of light rimming the clouds of their pasty, racist heaven while they died in those battlefields. I suppose their angels had fallen alongside them.
A mother, considered nigger and slave, sticks her swollen breast in the mouth of a white child, who as her pretend master, gazes up into her eyes while that warm hug of milk sustains his life in her cradled arms. How could a lesser human type keep something so superior alive? There is an obvious disconnect between this aforementioned natural law and humanity. Centaurs in Greek mythos, half-human and horse creations, were born of rape and regarded as barbaric and chaotic. Maybe that’s why when Black women and girls were raped by their self-defined masters, their children, as enslaved demigods, made it into the house because they looked possessed by the savagery of their fathers.
Dissonance was and still is, the holy spirit of Whiteness. Giving Jesus a blonde-haired, blue-eyed makeover never changed the hearts and minds of devout Sunday, Christian spectators. It means nothing apparently that he was an unarmed brown man, crucified by the state. To follow Him is to love thy neighbor and enemy, not to barbarically kidnap and loot them. There are however true disciples Whiteness. It is worshipped and believed in as a superhuman controlling power. It created its system of faith, tithes, and sacrament through predatory capitalism around the globe. It doesn’t matter if you are “one of the good ones”. Whiteness itself is a mental disorder by definition: a condition that affects your thinking, feeling, mood, and behavior. And this dis-order is based on a fallacy. If this truth is not embraced, and modern lynchings are abolished, white people will naturally turn on each other and hang themselves with silver in hand, like Judas.
Presently, I’m writing as a 37-year-old Black woman, artist, and activist who married a “white” man and created three little men together out of love. I have been blessed with a fourth son through marriage. A culture war habitual for some time in our home, mostly by my doing. When my husband first told me that he didn’t subscribe to “whiteness” and wanted to write HUMAN on the boy’s birth certificates, I responded that it is a luxury to be post-race! What a disaster to subconsciously posture my Blackness against oppression, and to be offended when someone who loves me won’t subscribe to being my master. But, I was afraid that if he didn’t see his whiteness, that meant that my children would be in trouble because if he didn’t acknowledge racism, then he couldn’t protect them from it. You see, in my world, there is nothing more dangerous than the pyromania of whiteness: the burning of crosses, humans, Tulsa’s, and our Mother Earth for industry, power, ego, and ascendance. That same fire of self-hate became the intergenerational trauma that kindles in my belly. No amount of prayer has eradicated it. A few days ago, you could see the tips of flickering flames come out my ears when a boxed-blonde woman asked me if I was my own children’s Nanny.
I have no desire for the American Dream of freedom based on the oppression of others. We are all lying like rugs to ourselves under a spell of gilded identity, and wonder why so many disorders exist. It’s in the water. It should be clear that unavoidably, calling yourself white, is racist. And for people who consider themselves to be so, your crisis of self is coming like a dark abyss, for when the truth sets you free, it will be strange and painful. There is so much karma to swim through to get to the other side.
I don’t want my sons to ever celebrate the Fourth of July. I don’t want them to hear my mother-in-law speak proudly about their family being the first settlers in Virginia. I don’t want to be thought of as a sell-out by my people for falling in love with a “white” man. I don’t want to be considerate of their father’s feelings when it comes to Black things we do. I want my sons to be raised as proud, Black men without hate, steeped white pride. I want them to fear the police and know to comply. I want them to know their opportunities are limited and that they have to work twice as hard to achieve the same goals. I want them to understand how oppressed they are being Black in America. And for the first time, in this stream of consciousness, I hear the demon of enslavement in my voice and understand that it's time to choke it to death and release it for good. Love and wanting to be a good mother has exposed a lack of harmony in my existence.
I want to understand who I am as a human without being “other” for once. I’ve learned that to eradicate this grooming and cease victimization, I must learn my history. To have equality, I must act on my differences and not my similarities. So, for my soul and my children, I will dive into Africa, my true home, that just so happens to have understood my recognition before I did, and doesn’t accept me either as a result.
None of us chose the skin we are in, and that’s exactly the point. Our skin does not determine our humanity. The creation of whiteness was the creation of racism. Whiteness is the standard of society in the United States and this country oppresses whoever isn’t systemically as a result. All people are shades of brown, no matter how pale. If you subscribe to Whiteness, which understandably is inevitably all you know, you need to cultivate an identity without a foundation of hate, just as much as I do as a Black woman. It’s a lot to take in. There is even more, to cut out. Revolution is anything but easy, especially in your mind, but that is where it starts and ends. If you learn the truth and choose to ignore it, then you are choosing the comfort of lies over the dehumanization of others. And I am willing to offend for the sake of correction; to finally free us all.